I grew up in church. Some of my earliest memories are from church events—everything from Sunday school to vacation Bible school. But a strange thing happened after many years of church experience: I encountered Christian community for the first time.
Why this happened so long after my first exposure to church is the subject of another article. Perhaps the churches I attended didn’t “get” Christian community, or perhaps I didn’t have the “ears to hear” about it during my early days. Let’s assume the latter is the case. What strikes me most now is that when I finally encountered Christian community, for whatever reason, I was hooked.
Love for Christ Breeds Love for His Church
See, that was when I started to truly love Christ’s church. That love is why I became a church planter. I love seeing churches full of believers who are serious about fulfilling the one-another commands of Scripture. I love when church members take seriously their responsibility to help one another follow Jesus better. I love when they care for each other, serve each other, and devote themselves to Bible study together. Churches like this have great impact. They’re not perfect, but they’re beautiful. They are communities of flawed Jesus followers whose mutual love and service cause the continued growth of each member (Eph. 4:11–16).
From my first encounter with Christian community, I learned that church can and should be so much more than membership lists, constitutions, covenants, meaningless repetition of ordinances, committees, tense business meetings, and styles of music. Of course, we’ve adopted some of these forms in our attempt to apply biblical teachings about church. But if we’re not careful we can equate “church” with the applications we’ve adopted. What my soul needs most is to understand what the Bible says a church does and why it does it.
The early church didn’t seem eager to write a “how-to” book. It seems they were more satisfied that they acted as a church than how
they acted as a church.
The first church understood this. They worshiped in the synagogue, but they taught in homes and in public. They took the Lord’s Supper in their homes for the pragmatic reason that “drinking blood” would have been offensive to their fellow Jews. They didn’t seem eager to write a “how-to” book about their church. Rather, it seems they were more satisfied that they acted as a church than how they acted as a church.
Strategies for Discipling New Believers into Christian Community
Our family moved with two other church planters to a mostly Muslim city with no believers. For eighteen long months, we plodded along learning language and sharing the gospel daily with no response. After that, several young men believed and were baptized. Being church planters, we began to ask a tough question: how can we teach these new believers the importance of church where there is no church? The ramifications were great. They would have to teach others in the same way. We began laying the DNA for future church planting.
After some trial and lots of error, we settled on a particular methodology for discipling new believers into the church:
- Begin “one another”-ing with new believers right away.
We want new believers to understand that “Christianity is a corporate matter, and the Christian life can be fully realized only in relationship to others.”  There are many biblical commands that can only be obeyed in relationship with other Christians. Some of these commands are known as “one another” commands. These relational commands of Scripture are always life-giving no matter how small in number the Christians are who obey them. The commands will always help you and will always help new believers.
- Disciple in groups of three or more.
As you study the Scriptures regularly with new believers, include others so there are at least three people involved. This models that you need to be discipled as much as you need to disciple others. New believers can help encourage longtime Christians to follow Jesus, and any influence we receive that helps us follow Jesus better is discipleship. Discipling in groups of three also models that discipleship is best done in community. One-on-one discipleship is a valid way to disciple others but should not be the only way discipleship happens in the church.
- Resist the view that discipleship is a distraction from evangelism.
How well you love one another helps your evangelism. Your faithful love for one another will help people who aren’t Christians believe the gospel and your claims that the Father sent the Son (John 17:21).  Let non-Christians see you and new believers mutually love one another and share the gospel together.
- Realize that not every church is a healthy church.
Take time to carefully answer this two-part question: which Christian community should this person join—should they be the start of a new group or should they join an existing community? This question only applies if there is an existing healthy church for the new believer to join. At some point he or she must belong to a church. However, if you are discipling in a group context and faithfully obeying the corporate commands of Scripture together, then the new believer is learning how to live within the church community. This reduces the urgency for new believers to immediately join the first—potentially unhealthy—church they find. Together, you can help them find a healthy church that understands how serious church involvement is.
The goal of discipleship is not church planting. It’s becoming like Christ.
I want to be careful to say: the goal of discipleship is not church planting. It’s becoming like Christ. But I have found that Christian community helps me become like Christ. And I’ve discovered that the principles above are helpful even for Christians who aren’t planting first-generation churches. Wherever I am, it’s good for me to obey the corporate commands of the Bible with Christians around me. I am helped by regularly seeking two or three others to study the Bible with and offering accountability in our walks with Christ. Non-Christians are helped when they can see Christians who love one another in a way that displays the gospel we are proclaiming.
Ultimately, though, I am helped by other Christians because together we are encouraged and strengthened to follow Jesus and become more like him. God does this in us and through our interactions together.
In other words, I continue to grow up in church.
Ken Caruthers and his family served among Muslims in Turkey and led twenty-six church planting teams in five countries. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he serves as the associate vice president of training for the International Mission Board.
 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1998), 1058.
 Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of a Christian (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1970), 14.